Staunton, October 3 – In December 1984, even before becoming CPSU leader, Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that competence rather than ethnicity should determine who would be appointed to key positions in the Soviet Union, a position that challenged the carefully calibrated balance of nationalities that had emerged after the death of Stalin.
Two years later, in December 1986, Gorbachev acted on that idea and named Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian who had been the Soviet minder in Georgia, to be first secretary of the Kazakhstan SSR communist party in place of the ethnic Kazakh, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, an action that sparked violent clashes in Alma Ata.
(Gorbachev compounded that error by insisting that there were no qualified Kazakhs, an insult but also something he proved was not the case when he imposed an ethnic Kazakh as second secretary in the party organization of the republic.)
More important, it led ever more non-Russians, who in the USSR formed half of the population, to ask what Gorbachev’s intentions were for them if they could no longer count on holding at least some of the top jobs in their republics. And that question in turn contributed to the acceleration of events that led to the disintegration of the USSR in another December, 1991.
Now, Vladimir Putin as Russian president is following in Gorbachev’s footsteps, by appointing a mixed Kazakh-Russian politician and security officer to be head of Daghestan, in place of Ramazan Abdulatipov, an Avar and thus a member of the dominant nation in that republic (riadagestan.ru/news/president/vladimir_vasilev_naznachen_vrio_glavy_dagestana/).
Coming on the heels of Putin’s refusal to extend the power-sharing agreement with Tatarstan and his attack on the obligatory study of non-Russian languages by all pupils in non-Russian republics, Putin may win some plaudits from Russian nationalists who will see this as redressing the imbalance they have always felt is the case.
And such people will undoubtedly be thrilled that Putin has installed someone with an interior ministry background with the rank of colonel general in the internal troops, who has spent his entire career in the Russian Federation, and who can thus be expected to impose order on the most restive republic in the North Caucasus.
But the peoples of Daghestan and the other non-Russians who now form almost a quarter of the population of the Russian Federation are certain to be less pleased and to see this latest appointment just as non-Russians did Gorbachev’s appointment of Kolbin 31 years ago as a threat to their future and as a compelling reason to reflect about their own aspirations.
In contrast to Gorbachev, Putin is certainly far more prepared to use “big blood” to prevent the further unravelling of the empire. But he may discover as Gorbachev did that force alone is not enough to hold things together for long. And if that is so, future historians of the next wave of imperial devolution are going to look back to today’s appointment as a key event.